Yogi Who?

Yogi Who

Yogi Berra (c) John G. Zimmerman

Yogi Berra
(c) John G. Zimmerman

Most of you have heard the story of how young Larry Berra of St. Louis, Missouri picked up the nickname “Yogi” on his way to becoming an American sports icon and the only inspiration for the famous cartoon character, Yogi Bear. If you’ve ever wondered who the model yogi was for that divinely inspired identity alteration, I’m right in there with you, but let me warn you before you read even further: I still don’t know – and I’ve never met or read anyone else who apparently does. – That doesn’t mean it isn’t traceable or that we would not discover along the way that someone has quietly made a fairly safe rescue of the truth, but either never published it – or else, they published it too obscurely to be heard.

Let’s review what we know about how the nickname supposedly came about:

Factual Assertion # 1: When Berra was a young adolescent, he and some of his buddies from the Italian neighborhood in St. Louis known as “The Hill” went to the movies together. Since Berra was born on May 12, 1925, that would have put the year at about 1938 to 1940 tops, but I’m betting 1938, when he was just turning 13. We would still need to research all three years.

Factual Assertion # 2: As per usual with this movie period, Berra and friends witnessed a movie newsreel of current events. As a sort of earlier version of television’s “Entertainment Tonight,” these short extra films on world news usually featured and concluded with light stories designed to grab their American audiences into an “aw, look at that” state of attention. On this particular day, the newsreel featured film of a real Nation of India yogi in action (or inaction, to put it more technically.)

Factual Assertion # 3: After the movie, one of Yogi’s buddies (it may have been Joe Garagiola, but I’m not sure) said something like: “Hey! That yogi in the picture show looked a lot like Berra here. From now on, let’s call Larry by a name that fits him better. Let’s call him “Yogi Berra.” Berra apparently didn’t object and the name stuck. He was on his way to becoming Yogi Berra for the rest of his life, even if his mother and father didn’t know about it for quite a while.

Our Question: Who was the actual yogi figure that inspired this transfer of his title young Lawrence Peter Berra of St. Louis?

If you were going to research it, I would suggest these steps:

(1) Do a library/Internet search of what has been written on this subject and proceed to follow up on any questions and contacts discovered.

(2) Talk with Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola, asap, if possible access can be arranged. Neither is getting any younger. Try to find out all you can about the year of the actual occurrence – and anything else they remember about the actual yogi film clip.

(3) There were only a few studios that did newsreels prior to World War II. Find out who they were – and how much availability you might be able to get for the sake of researching the question. Sometimes the knowledge that you are doing research for history is a turn-key to normally closed doors.

(4) Take whatever you find on film back to Berra, Garagiola, and other surviving members of that movie trip day in long ago St. Louis. Visual evidence sometimes can reawaken memories that are no longer available as conscious thoughts. – The photo of “Yogi Who” shown above is of an Indian mystic from that late 1930s period, but I’ve misplaced my record of his name and the news article I found on him in a search on this same question years ago. I’ve always thought he may have been the inspiration because of his similar facial resemblance to Yogi Berra. *

* Correction: I once had an unidentified photo from a 1930s yogi that strongly resembled this one, but the one I mistakenly used here is Mike Myers, as he appeared in the movie, “The Love Guru.” Frequent contributor Cliff Blau discovered my error and left a correctional comment below, something I always welcome when I get things wrong. The Myers photo was only listed in my files as “Yogi Mystic” – and I had never seen that movie and had failed to recognize the actor in make up in the photo used here. I thought it was the one I never found. – Just another lesson we are never too old to learn or re-learn: Always label your written and photo material accurately – or don’t use it. My apologies.

(5) In the end, if this research project doesn’t hold all your attention, you may want to turn your energies to this less academic research query. It’s one of much greater practical importance, but not nearly as much fun as the Yogi name quest.

Here’s the question: Given the current direction of our American economy, and no matter who wins the presidential election in November, how are we going to keep making a living in 2013?

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3 Responses to “Yogi Who?”

  1. Bob Hulsey Says:

    One of my favorite Berra stories was when he did a tv interview (I believe it was with Phil Rizzuto) and, as was often the case in those pregame interviews, the guest was awarded with some sort of gift at the end to promote a sponsor. In this case, a giant cardboard check (big enough to be seen on those old b&w tv sets) was put before Yogi to symbolize the cash prize he was receiving. The check (as was often addressed back then) said “Pay to bearer”.

    Yogi looked at it, turned to Phil and said “Hey Phil! How long you know me? You can’t even spell my name??”

  2. Cliff Blau Says:

    After reading number 4, I had to check that today’s date isn’t April 1, because that sure looks like Mike Myers from The Love Guru to me.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:


      You are so good. Wish I could write it off to an April 1st calendar trick of the mind, but that isn’t it – and I should know better. I used to have an unidentified real Indian Yogi photo around here that looked like this one, but this one isn’t it.

      Lo and behold, you caught me in an unintentional error. Best I can tell, that is Mike Meyers in The Love Guru, which I never saw.. He just looks like the guy I remembered, but I only had this photo of Myers, listed only as Yogi Mystic in my photo files,

      My apologies to historical accuracy – with help again from Cliff Blau.

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